One of the biggest threats to the wildlife of Palamu Tiger Reserve (PTR), spread over an area of 1130 sq.kms in West-Central Jharkhand, has been the New Delhi-Ranchi Railway line that slices through the Tiger Reserve’s core ranges of East & West Chhipadohar over a distance of 8 kms. About 70 trains — both passenger and freight — ply on this busy rail route everyday (these lines have been in existence before Palamu’s notification as a Tiger Reserve in 1973). Nobody knows how many small and medium sized mammals have been killed over the decades on these killer tracks, for their carcasses are usually taken away by locals. And although no tiger has ever been killed on these tracks, a number of elephants have been mowed down over the years. Today, these tracks are one of the gravest threats that Palamu’s 160 odd elephants face.
Even though the whole 8 km stretch of this line is extremely dangerous for Palamu’s elephants and other wildlife, there are two extremely vulnerable points which account for almost all the elephant accidents over the last four decades – one being a sharp bend at the Jawa river overbridge, and the other one being the Hehegada-Chhipadohar bend seen in the accompanying photograph.
These two spots can perhaps rightly be termed as the “Elephant Kill Zones” in Palamu. In the photograph, one can observe the blind curve at the far end of the line. The unsuspecting elephants crossing this bend can’t see the train, nor can the driver see the elephants on/near the tracks. So when a train suddenly comes along on this busy route while an elephant herd is crossing the tracks, more often than not a couple of inexperienced elephants (mostly calves or young sub-adults) get nervous and hence transfixed at the spot. Since elephants are highly social creatures, the rest of the herd — especially the mother of the calf and the matriarch — always comes to the rescue. Unfortunately by that time, it’s usually too late and the oncoming train mows down every elephant on the track. This is precisely what happened in 2003, when 4 Elephants ( 1 male, 3 females) were killed on the Jawa overbridge bend. A total of 6 elephants have been killed over the last 9 years.
Almost all of these accidents happen because none of the promises made by the Dhanbad Railway division to the Forest Department have been honoured. At a joint meeting between the Railways and the Forest Department in 2004-05, a mutual agreement was drafted wherein the Railways agreed to a speed limit of 20km/hr on this stretch, blowing the horn at regular intervals and keeping the high mast lights on throughout this stretch. Moreover, it was also agreed that the railways would employ laborers to uproot vegetation that was obstructing visibility, and that the drivers and guards would be specially instructed to be very careful, and keep a lookout for any animal movement. However, when the elephant calf was mowed down last year, witnesses testified that Palamu Express was running at a speed of about 60kms/hr. Unfortunately, after every such incident, the Railways is either defensive or evasive. And although it promptly promises that rules won’t be flouted and erring employees would be punished, nothing is ever done.
Palamu Tiger Reserve has a staff vacancy of almost 90%, and hence effective manning of this 8 km stretch, especially at night when most accidents happen, is not possible. Also, the fact that this area is a Naxal citadel doesn’t help much as far as morale of the staff is concerned. Even though the Naxals haven’t deliberately killed a Forest Department staff uptil now (4 have been killed so far in two landmine blasts when their vehicles were mistaken for the police), a fear psychosis does pervade among the staff. So the handful of staff still left in the Tiger Reserve is reluctant to venture out into the forests in the night.
Despite being faced with such crippling constraints, the Forest Department has recently developed an ingenious method to check over-speeding of trains. About 4-5 kms beyond the bend you see in the photograph, lies a small station called Hehegada (Hehegada is perhaps the “most blown up station” in Jharkhand) and almost the same distance on the opposite side lies the station of Chhipadohar. The timings at which every train on this route departs from Hehegada and reaches Chhipadohar, and vice-versa, are noted. And since the distance between the two stations is known, the speed of the train between these two stations can be calculated. This method has significantly reduced over-speeding by trains because such a misdemeanor on the driver’s part can be easily checked and may land him in trouble. Obviously, this method isn’t fool-proof and scope for manipulations by the railway employees is very real. However, with the limited manpower and resources that Palamu Tiger Reserve is hamstrung with, this is perhaps the best that can be done for now.
In the long run, only a joint effort on the lines of the successful Rajaji Train Hit Mitigation Plan involving coordinated efforts between the Forest Department and the Indian Railways can prevent further damage. But with the current governmental as well as non-governmental apathy towards Palamu Tiger Reserve, the worsening law and order situation and the unbelievable staff crunch (the staff vacancy at Palamu would be an incredible 100% in another couple of years) this goal seems a distant dream.
Acknowledgments: I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Mr. Anil Kumar Mishra, CF, Buffer, Palamu Tiger Reserve for providing me the details plus photographs of the 2011 accident and Mr. J.P. Rai, Assistant, Project Tiger Directorate, Daltonganj, Palamu for providing elephant mortality data that has been quoted in this article.